(Watch-out... this could be S E R I O U S )

"We kill at every step, not only in wars, riots, and executions. We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, suffering, and shame. In the same way all disrespect for life, all hard-heartedness, all indifference, all contempt is nothing else than killing. With just a little witty skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a young person. Life is waiting everywhere, the future is flowering everywhere, but we only see a small part of it and step on much of it with our feet."

Hermann Hesse, German poet and novelist



Some years ago I found a book containing biographical sketches by Hermann Hesse in which he eloquently levelled precisely the same criticisms of his education - more than a hundred years ago - as I had at mine. Discovering this was both warming and depressing. Warming because it challenged an issue that seemed almost universally unacknowledged: here was an esteemed Nobel laureate who wrote openly against the establishment (any establishment); depressing, since I lamented on how it would have boosted my confidence had I read this as a thirteen-year-old. Nothing ever changes, I thought, upon discovering this, in spite of the A S Neills of this world and now in spite of this celebrated author too - the tired old system drags on leaving ever more tattered lives in its wake.

'For those who have experienced it, the hour of the awakening of passion for knowledge is the most memorable of a lifetime… In that moment, man glimpses the possibility of becoming truly human, and recognises that the instruments required in this new existence are not weapons and tools, but intellect and imagination.' ('Beyond the Outsider' 1965. Colin Wilson)

I cannot quote that extract too often. What people fail to realise, I reflect whenever I hear someone explain how a particular teacher inspired them, is that for every positive event like that there are many thousands - perhaps millions - in which the opposite happens. For the fortunate few - for whom this passion for knowledge arises - it nearly always does so in spite of and not because of school. It was certainly so in my case. But this situation illustrates how the immense inertia of tradition overpowers reason, common sense and practical experience - or perhaps, to take a more cynical view, it reveals the determination of the Establishment to preserve its position, and to keep the masses ignorant and deceived, and in their place.

The truth is that there has been no significant progress in state secondary education in the UK in the past 50 years - except the abolition of corporal punishment, which was only achieved through pressure from European human rights laws. Secondary school for most children remains the same grim, joyless day-prison that's it's essentially been for more than a century. Delight in learning, zest for knowledge - these, should a kid somehow retain them into adolescence - rarely have any connection with school; for most kids school means long hours of sitting bored in oppressive rooms crowded in with other kids just itching to be free - each of them with their own unique interests and concerns, and, under threat of punishment, having to behave in ways that conflict with virtually all natural instincts. For them - or most of them - the entire concept of 'Education' is turned on its head, making it something to dread rather than relish.

Except perhaps in a few universities, there seems almost no awareness of the Neill or Hesse psychology or of the real needs of youth. Nor does there appear to be a genuine will to create a truly educational environment. In fact, from all appearances, 'education' remains a mechanism for preserving the status quo, for keeping juveniles off the streets, for producing factory and office fodder as reqired by the corporate regime we live under and for turning creative minds into ones that are sedate, unquestioning and conformist… minds that will generally obey almost any conditioning and accept, grudgingly or otherwise, a soundly embedded mediocrity and fate.

It wasn't necessary to read anything to be aware of the above, but it may well have drifted from my mind altogether and become relegated to a dead and mostly forgotten past - as doubtless happens for most adults once they are free from the compulsory reins of so called 'education' - were it not for the resurrection inspired by Hesse's autobiographical essays.This, though, is just one detail of many that emerge from Hesse's work. Hence there follows a slightly more comprehensive perspective.




Hermann Hesse 1877- 1962

A Glimpse


"Remember, dear friends, now and then, just for a moment: how short life is." Hermann Hesse


What initially impressed me about Hesse was the way his work dramatically changed my attitude to books and even life in general - and I was well into my thirties when I discovered him. Chiefly, at first, it was his expression of intangible inner experiences that made the greatest impact. These seemed to match precisely what I felt but had not until then been aware of, even less been able to articulate to myself. His work was both new and familiar, and seemed to address remote yet important aspects of thought - subconscious thought. Science, politics and other conscious intellectual issues were things that one could take or leave according to circumstances. Hesse's work, on the other hand, concerned all of existence - inner and outer world alike, and the curious relation between them.

With a wholly different perspective to that taken by existentialism, this new approach was not so much optimistic and intuitive - as compared with the predominately pessimistic, rationalistic overtones of existentialism - but was eminently artistic and beautiful despite its essential tragic component.

Such was my 'education' that it is a shameful and telling fact that I had scarcely heard of Herman Hesse until, as I say, I was almost 35 - even then, it was by sheer chance that I discovered him. The younger brother of a friend had begun a degree course in literature. This brother had lent him one the books on his reading list: Hesse's 'Knulp' (1915).

From the cover: 'Knulp is the eternal vagabond. Haunted by a sense of the perishable nature of everything, he keeps on the move. But, as for everyone, the sunny days of good health give way to illness and decline. Even an aimless life, he realises, has some purpose… erratic and irresponsible, yet always with warmth and fellow-feeling, Knulp followed his nomadic instinct to the last.'

This yearning for vagrancy preoccupied Hesse for most of his life. Perhaps we are all wanderers at heart, and like Hesse half-despise the dull comforts afforded by our normally settled lives which we cannot bring ourselves to relinquish but which we know can be suffocating. Anyone who has travelled abroad 'on a shoestring' will know the immense joy of being free from the cares and concerns, routines and attachments, that invade the settled life.

Living in the time and place that he did, Hesse's life was not free of despair, and was in fact a kind of sad fairytale (See Ralph Freedman's outstanding Biography 'Pilgrim of Crisis'). But his work touches the heart as Dostoyevsky's touches the intellect. Together these authors demonstrate the pinnacle of human achievement in art. Yet literature, at least in their case, is more than art - the art is in the compelling form and structure, the skill of articulation, of clarity and apparent simplicity, of poignant philosophies interwoven into a strange beauty of language that flows from the sincerity of natural genius; but it also contains elements from within us, usually inaccessible and inexpressible, mysterious yet meaningful, elements which we instantly recognise and lock-on to, mesmerised, astonished, shaken, as by a lucid dream.

Most of Hesse's work is at surface simple and clear, but to the novice it is also strange and mysterious. It is tempting to believe, as I did while reading Hesse, that one is being guided along a divine path, a path that will ultimately lead to some wonderful realisation, some undreamt-of fulfilment - even nirvana itself. We are induced into believing we are moving towards a destiny in paradise, or at the very least a destiny that will reveal some glorious final solution to the greatest problems and questions of life and existence. We are buoyed-up and carried along like the children who followed the pied piper - we imagine ourselves transported from our mundane and chaotic lives into a landscape of untold beauty and ultimate inner peacefulness, and the promise of great beyonds… This is what happens for Anselm at the conclusion of Hesse's remarkable story 'Iris'.

But 'The Journey to the East' is perhaps his most poignant treatise of all. And we can easily relate to it, for each of our lives is a journey, sometimes smooth, bathed in sunshine and adorned with flowers… sometimes rough and barren, festooned with stones beneath turbulent skies. But although he sets us going in leaps, one soon realises that Hesse's journey was exclusively his own, and can belong to no-one but him. Like Leo in 'The Journey to the East', we suddenly realise we have lost our way, and just as Leo seeks to return to his lost 'path', so can we.

On the back of my copy of 'The Journey to the East' is written:

"…is the story of a youthful pilgrimage that seemingly failed. As the book opens, the narrator is engaged in writing the chronicle of this remembered adventure - the central experience of his youth. As he becomes immersed in retelling the chronicle, the writer realises that only he has failed, that the youthful pilgrimage continues in a shining and mysterious way."

It's impossible to avoid falling under the spell, of believing that this is all our chronicles, that we all have failed, but that unknown to us, because of our adult blindness - caused by years of becoming increasingly lost, of unrelenting diversions from what we inwardly know should be our true course if only we had the courage to follow it - unknown to us, the great universal pilgrimage goes on; we have only to open our eyes... Luckily, the book is small, about 100 pages, because I confess that I had to read it several times before I began to sense its significance.

So Hesse's fiction is not always easy to penetrate fully, yet it is very easy to read and understand - to the depth one needs to see, or is prepared to make the effort to see - which can be enhanced by relating one piece of his work to another. For instance, some of the poems attached to 'The Glass Bead Game' loom into clarity when one has read the autobiographical sketches: 'Childhood of a Magician', 'From My Schooldays', 'Life Story Briefly Told' etc. And the locations for 'Klingsor's Last Summer' (my favourite story) can be found on a map.

In contrast to the vaguely surreal aspect to most of his work, Hesse wrote many essays. Some examine particular subjects such as 'Notes on The Idiot by Dostoyevsky' or 'Happiness' or 'Interpreting Kafka' while others are of a more penetrating, critical nature. The latter are among his most incisive, containing none of the usual mystery. Here he was addressing the intellect and intended us to be in no doubt. They concern serious issues - of the moment: 'Letter to a Young German', 'World Crisis and Books' - and of all time: 'History', 'Dream After Work', 'Self-will'. Curiously, even those of the moment have a timeless quality. 'Letter to a Young German' is as worthy of attention in 2003 as when it was written in 1919 immediately after the first world war; it was intended to persuade German youth to listen to their own hearts instead of to a dictator, to propaganda or the proverbial crowd - as so many of us unwittingly do. There are many others, as I've said, but I think 'Self-will' is one of the most appropriate for all time. Here's a section from it:

"THERE is one virtue that I love, and only one. I call it self-will. - …True, all the virtues man has devised for himself might be subsumed under a single head: obedience. But the question is: whom are we to obey? For self-will is also obedience. But all the other virtues, the virtues that are so highly esteemed and praised, consist in obedience to man-made laws. Self-will is the only virtue that takes no account of these laws. A self-willed man obeys a different law, the one law I hold absolutely sacred - the law in himself, his own 'will'.

It is a great pity that self-will should be held in such low esteem! Do men think well of it? Oh no, they regard it as a vice or at best as a deplorable aberration. They call it by its eloquent full name only where it arouses antagonism and hatred. (Come to think of it, true virtues always arouse antagonism and hatred. Witness Socrates, Jesus, Giordano Bruno, and all other self-willed men.)…

There are only two poor accursed beings on earth who are excluded from following this eternal call and from being, growing, living, and dying as an inborn and deeply ingrained self-will commands. Only man and the domestic animals he has tamed are condemned to obey, not the law of life and growth, but other laws that are made by men and from time to time broken and changed by men. And the strangest part of it is that those few who have disregarded these arbitrary laws to follow their own natural law have come to be revered as heroes and liberators - though most of them were persecuted in their lifetime. The same mankind which praises obedience to its arbitrary laws as the supreme virtue of the living reserves its eternal pantheon for those who have defied those laws and preferred to die rather than betray their 'self-will'."

That was written in 1919. It isn't, of course, necessary to take Hesse's philosophy - or anyone else's for that matter - seriously. Nor should one necessarily agree with it - as he suggests: examine your own will, your own soul. What matters, as with all literature, is that it triggers thought and inspires new outlooks on existence.

If any hardnuts reading this think Hesse's work mawkish or soppy, it isn't. If I've made it seem so then I've done it (and you) a disservice, for which I apologise. If you haven't already, try it for yourself. Some of his work - whole books even - are available on the web.




See also (solace) 'TREES' and (the suicide) 'KLEIN & WAGNER' and from 'Klingsor's Last Summer': 'The Day at Kareno' & 'The Music of Doom'.